selection of wine food

Where to start with pairing wine and food

When you are just starting out entertaining and inviting close friends home for dinner you may not give much thought to the food and drink you serve. It’s more about burgers and beer at the BBQ than fine wines and three courses, but when you want to do something a little more formal it can be really useful to know the best matches that can be made between food and wine.

Some people spend their working lives advising on this topic, and there’s definitely a lot to learn, so here we are just looking at the basics of this huge and in-depth subject. That means whether you know absolutely nothing about food and wine pairing, or have a little experience and are keen to learn more then this site should help you.

Where do you start?

Something to keep in mind is that you can either start from scratch and decide on the wine you like the sound of before organizing the best food to complement it, or you can decide on a menu then tackle the possible wine matches. This flexibility is useful as planning what to eat which may need to be based around pleasing guests with specific food needs and intolerances, alongside individual likes and dislikes, your budget, or even just what food you happen to have in and wish to use that day.

The science behind food and wine pairing

It’s good to know exactly why people bother spending time making a good match between the food and wine they wish to serve together, especially when you probably have good memories of a pan of spaghetti which went just fine with the supermarket red wine you bought at a discount.

The point is that while there are plenty of accidental or convenient matches which taste perfectly pleasant, food and wine pairing is about taking things to the next level – harnessing age-old strategies to create a near-perfect balance between the characteristics of the wine and the ingredients in the food dish being served.

The top basic food and wine pairing tips in a sentence each:

  • The wine should always be sweeter than the food it is paired with – which explains the use of dessert wine.
  • The wine should be more acidic than the food served.
  • Serve intense, full-bodied wines with food you would describe the same way.
  • Bold flavored food such as red meat tends to be better with red wines, as are fatty foods like cheese.
  • Milder tasting or lighter food, such as chicken, wine or soy products are usually better matches for white wines.
  • If serving food with a sauce match the wine with that, rather than the meat.
  • Avoid matching heavier wines with spicy tendencies with spicy food, choosing a fruitier white instead.

Putting names to labels

With wine you only need to focus on matching six of the 20+ tastes that can be found in food from around the world. The six to think about are:

  • Salt
  • Sweet
  • Bitter
  • Acid
  • Spice (aka piquant)
  • Fat

Most wines have some level of the sweet, bitter and acid elements mentioned above, but fewer have the remaining components of fat, spice and salt. We can break it down further to say that generally

  • reds are more likely to have bitter tones
  • acidic wines tend to be sparkly, rose or white
  • sweet wines are obviously more likely to be sweet

Need help identifying the main taste and type of a food?

Don’t over-think it. For example, mac and cheese are mainly fatty, creamed corn is mainly sweet, while salad dressings tend to be acidy. There is no one entire color of wine which will be perfect for all one type of food – although the old adage ‘white for fish and red with meat’ has its roots in truth. The trick then is to narrow the wine options down so you match it with the main component of the dish. Don’t forget to check that a wine is suitable for vegans if that is a factor.

You can find lots more detailed information on the best food and wine pairings at this specialist store, but in the meantime here’s:

The skinny on mainstream wines with names you can use when shopping

  • Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are two low-acid whites, and the former is lighter. Sauvignon Blanc goes especially well with a meal heavy on goat or feta cheese, nuts all lighter meats such as poultry and pork, tangy desserts like sorbet or key lime pie, and fatty white fish dishes. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is trickier as it can be bottled quickly or aged for longer in oak – which obviously means the end results are different. It’s great with strong cheeses, veal, pork and poultry, seafood like lobster, and old school desserts such as bread pudding.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied red which is often more bitter than some other reds due to its higher tannin level.
  • Go for a bolder red wine like a Shiraz for a rich dish with smoky fatty cheese.
  • Riesling produced in the USA tends to be quite sweet, while European Rieslings are much less so. They are both good choices for spicy food, sweet nuts, mild fish like trout, food with spicy sauces and smoked meats.
  • Pinot Noir is a lighter red which isn’t too bitter, and is quite versatile when being matched with food. This means it matches well with goat’s cheese, salmon, darker meats, truffles, dried fruits and creamy desserts.

There are plenty more wines we could run through, but rather than turn a handy guide into a college length essay, especially when you can grab lots more free information on the site we linked to earlier, we’ll leave it there and raise a glass to celebrate your first steps into the wonderful world of wine pairing.

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